Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn (left) and County Judge Ron Cunningham aired their differences over jail policies and law enforcement pay at a regular meeting of the Commissioners Court on June 13. Courtesy photos
Tensions between two of Llano County’s top elected officials were glaringly public during a Commissioners Court meeting Monday, June 13. Curt comments were exchanged as Judge Ron Cunningham and Sheriff Bill Blackburn discussed new jail policies, an outside audit of the Sheriff’s Office, and pay for jailers, dispatchers, and deputies.
The dispute was finally shelved — at least for the time being — when the judge angrily told the sheriff: “We will not engage in a confrontation in this room. That’s it, Sheriff. That is it.”
By the time that was said, a confrontation had already gone down.
Blackburn first showed his displeasure when asked about a timeframe for implementing new jail policies — policies Cunningham made clear he expected to already be in place. The judge also wanted to know why the sheriff had not signed off on an audit of his office by an outside vendor.
“I’ll be glad to answer that when I get a copy of the audit,” Blackburn responded. “This so-called audit was supposed to be between the (district attorney) and myself to make things easier. It was not presented to me as an audit of the Sheriff’s Office, and I cannot address it until I see a copy.”
Blackburn also said the new policies he had planned were being tweaked and would be in place by July 1.
The situation worsened as the court moved on to the next item: paying out comp time for officers working overtime. Commissioners voted to use excess payroll and benefit line items within the Sheriff’s Office budget to pay $35,000 in overtime accrued as of May 31.
“We’ve done this before,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Don Moss. “And I don’t think that situation will get any better in the Sheriff’s Office any time soon. When we’re shorthanded, we’ve got to have people working.”
Blackburn took this opportunity to point out that Llano County has the lowest pay in Central Texas for those law enforcement positions.
“We can’t even get anybody to apply because of the pay rate,” he said.
“That’s not the only reason,” Cunningham countered.
“It’s the main one,” Blackburn said. “Mason County pays $3 more per hour for dispatchers. We pay 47 cents over minimum wage. They will not come here because we do not pay anything.”
Again, Cunningham said, “That’s not the only reason.”
“What is the reason, Judge?” Blackburn asked.
“Leadership is one of the reasons,” the judge answered.
The sheriff’s response to that was emotional.
“You have made me jump through hoops a dozen times,“ said Blackburn, voice shaking. “This deal about the jail? You hit me at 3 p.m. Friday wanting all this information. You don’t do that to other departments, you do it to the Sheriff’s Office.”
He then mentioned a multi-county chase in March that culminated with two suspects firing about 40 rounds at officers before being apprehended.
“I had one commissioner call me after my officers got shot at over 40 times — one call to ask me how the Sheriff’s Office was doing — and that was Jerry Don Moss,” he said. “That does upset me. You asked me why the officers in the field don’t think y’all support us? That’s a very good reason. You were not interested in our officers being shot at.”
As Sheriff Blackburn was talking, Judge Cunningham began to speak over him, asking if the sheriff had called commissioners to tell them what was happening at the time of the incident. Cunningham then cut off the discussion.
“We can discuss this out of contact with everyone else,” he said. “We can discuss this later.”
After the meeting, Cunningham spoke to DailyTrib.com.
“There’s a multitude of things going on with the sheriff and I,” he said, including salaries. “We’ve given the sheriff everything he’s asked for and everything he has conditioned as long as I’ve been in office. Several months ago, he came with the (district attorney) to do an assessment to improve efficiencies of operation, and that’s what I was asking: What’s he done since that audit; if he’s made any implementations. He didn’t want to answer it.”
In a phone interview two days after the meeting, Blackburn agreed that he and the judge needed to work out their differences.
“The judge and I have some difficulties with each other,” he said. “It dates back to some other things I’m not going to get into. I can’t comment further on this. It’s getting too sensitive.”
He did go on to say he was upset over officer pay.
“Llano County does not have an overtime policy,” he said. “It has never had one. Every other county around us has an overtime policy.”
Llano County grants comp time for overtime, which means for every overtime hour worked, the employee can take a paid hour off.
“That doesn’t work too well where you have to have a set number of people on a shift,” he said. “You have to have so many jailers in the jail, so many dispatchers on duty.”
When Burnet County gave its jailers a raise, five jailers working in Llano County left for the higher pay. The head jailer, who made $42,000 a year in Llano County, was hired as a lieutenant in Burnet County for $62,000 — less responsibility, considerably more money, Blackburn said.
As elected officials, both the judge and the sheriff ultimately report to the county residents whose taxes pay their salaries. Neither of them has a “boss” beyond the people who live in the county.
“People need to look up what the duties of the sheriff are and the authority of the sheriff and the authority of county judge,” Blackburn said. “It’s an independent office. It’s my call and my responsibility, and the way the commissioners and the judge, the control they have over me is my budget. That is the only control.”
Blackburn ended with high praise for Llano County’s law enforcement.
“The people of Llano County are lucky to have the officers that they have,” he said. “I have a bunch of dedicated people that love their job, but nearly all of them have a part-time job they have to work to make ends meet.”
Cunningham agreed with Blackburn that the two need to work out their differences.
“Obviously, the sheriff and I need to have a deeper discussion, and we’re going to do that,” he said.